A few thoughts on Transformers 4 (minor spoilers)

I like to experience aesthetic extremes, so it is appropriate I ended up sitting through this one.  It is perhaps the most beautifully choreographed movie I have seen — ever — with one perfectly arranged ninety second sequence after another, in seamless fashion yet summed into something quite incoherent and meaningless and indeed even obnoxious at times.  But did L’Avventura make much sense either?  (And like L’Avventura, Transformers 4 is way too long.)  Michael Nielsen was correct in his advice to view this new release as an art film.

The movie poses the question of how the world would look if technologies of defense were no longer clearly superior to technologies of offense.  The public choice answer seems to be that power shifts away from the Presidency, to the intelligence agencies, and to intellectual property holders, at least as first order effects.  Output is reallocated toward rural areas.

The political subtext of the movie is indicated rather clearly by the eventual military alliance of the red, white, and blue-wearing Optimus Prime with the Chinese dragons, consummated in China of course.  Unlike with the recent Godzilla movie, Japan is not the main intended Asian audience.  The Hong Kong scenes are spectacular, but the film reaffirms the importance of “central government” (i.e., Beijing) control over Hong Kong in rather heavy-handed fashion.  (This is done so transparently you could call it an anti-Straussian move — “hey, let’s make sure we get those shooting rights in Hong Kong again!”)  You also get to see a Chinese guy beat up on the CIA, gratuitously, using some kind of traditional Chinese boxing technique.

I am still fond of this this review and this one too of an earlier installment.  If you are tempted, you probably should see this movie, but I am not sure you should feel tempted to feel tempted.


omfg. TC just compared Transformer 4 to L'Avventura (!)

By my straussian reading of this movie review is yet another opportunity for China-bashing.

Hasn't China done that?

"The movie poses the question of how the world would look if technologies of defense were no longer clearly superior to technologies of offense. The public choice answer seems to be that power shifts away from the Presidency, to the intelligence agencies, and to intellectual property holders, at least as first order effects. Output is reallocated toward rural areas."

Didn't we already get an answer to that question in the age of nuclear-armed ICBMs? Or did you phrase that question backwards?

I was going to ask the same thing, except as an example i was going to name nearly every military technology in existence. Armor, be it body armor, vehicular armor building reinforcement, can be defeated by simply upping the amount of force applied against it. Your basic Kevlar vest is no match for a standard issue rifle. High grade combat armor can be defeated using higher powered rifles or garden variety grenades. Vehicle armor is no match for mines or IEDs or hellfires. Etc etc. Id say we are living in a time where "technologies of defense are no longer clearly superior to technologies of offense"

No kidding... That was a howler.

At a smaller scale, which do you think is more effective (or more cost-effective) in preventing terror attacks: SEAL teams and drone strikes, or the TSA?

Terror itself is a strategy of pure offense, with no pretense of being able to protect anybody - it relies on our reluctance to harm the tangentially involved in order to maintain a base.

perfectly composed 90 second scenes don't count for much anymore.

There was $100M dollars worth of CGI on the screen and I dozed off during the climax.

Choreography (Tyler's point) is the art of motion and form; if a scene is beautifully choreographed, what difference does the medium make?

On composition, you're right. CGI makes a lot of film-making technically uninteresting. Great movies seamlessly bring together the efforts of hundreds of people into one product, and they used to rely on every single person doing a terrific job. Now, one person at a computer can correct any mistake someone else down the line might have made. We may never again see the technical splendor of the famous Goodfellas tracking shot.

>>We may never again see the technical splendor of the famous Goodfellas tracking shot.

Alfonso Cuaron.

Good point. Gravity was the first movie in a long time to leave me enchanted. And I think the re-entry scene was excellently choreographed. I also think his phenomenal grasp of pacing/choreography is what made the third Harry Potter movie work so well.

Hard to top Russian Ark.

You missed the True Detective tracking shot hurrah a few months ago

I did miss that. I didn't even know True Detective was a show. I watched the tracking shot on YouTube, and it was pretty great. Fodder for the topic on whether TV has replaced cinema as the medium with the most technical sophistication.

TV has also replaced movies as the medium with the best story telling. Compare the abundance of very well written, compelling shows since the Sopranos with most of what's in the theater today.

There's probably an economic reason similar to Tyler's ethic restaurant guidance. It's so expensive to make a tent-pole movie that few studios dare take any risks at all. This leads to the mass of CGI driven sci-fi and action thrillers we get every summer. The lower costs of TV allow producers to take bigger risks and the competition from a dozen other stations/web-sites motivates them take those risks. There's probably also a time effect. Producing dozens of episodes a year vs. one huge movie every 3 years.

Boogie Nights has a pretty good long, continuous shot that I'm pretty sure is a tribute to the Goodfellas shot. P. T. Anderson always films his movies beautifully even if they don't make any sense.

"what difference does the medium make?"

Does it matter if Beethoven is played with symphonic instruments instead of a cheap keyboard? Of course it makes all the difference in the world. If there's no beauty in the fundamental sound of an instrument or the image on the screen, the result isn't likely to be beautiful. CGI mostly looks like shit and I have trouble watching it for more than a few minutes at a time. It seems as if instead of trying to make CGI "look real" filmmakers have decided that audiences are OK with everything looking fake. (There are some exceptions to this, but it seems to be the rule.)

Maybe the CGI artists are simply trying to make something that looks like CGI, with less and less interest in "fooling" audiences that it is real.

I am reminded of the scene from Amadeus where Salieri is moved as he simply reads Mozart's new symphony as sheet music. The medium there was not even auditory.

*Spoiler* The most poignant moment of the film is when Mark Wahlberg realizes that his own government is willing to kill his daughter to find Optimus Prime. I think that sequence imagines what it would have been like to be a Pakistani villager hiding an Al Qaeda official being hunted down by the US and the Pakistani military. Optimus Prime is the Al Qaeda official, Texas is Pakistan, our CIA is the Pakistani military, Lockdown (the robot bounty hunter) is the CIA--and Wahlberg is a Pakistani villager.

I'm reminded of the "Delores Umbridge is Nancy Pelosi" theory...

These asinine movies are made to be just universally appealing enough (i.e. Chinese families and US teenagers) to rake in the money with big boom effects and well choreographed fight scenes, but no real content. Political commentary? Ok, suuure.

@Jan - I agree, the Transformers IV movie was not art, just pop junk. And contrary to TC I thought the special effects below average. A bunch of pixels moving around, people fleeing but nobody is squashed or is there blood shown. Cybersteam technology, which reminded me of Will Smith's Wild Wild West movie. The giant magnet was the only interesting special effects part. The girl was cute, and that did not involve special effects (as far as I know).

The CTO of one of the major studios once told me, "Now that teenagers don't have to date to have sex, we don't have to make movies with plots."

One would expect "one perfectly arranged ninety second sequence after another" from a director whose masterpiece remains this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OLSsswr6z9Y.

I have zero temptation whatsoever.

Well, this is certainly less out there than your Apocalypto review.

I saw the first three Transformers. No real interest in the fourth. The first was enjoyable. The other two were stressful to watch. I had no interest in the characters or the fate of the planet--no small accomplishment, Mr. Bay--so my only concern as I watched all that demolition and destruction and chaos was, "Who's going to clean this up?"
How's that for suspense? All this stuff going on, and my biggest concern is that they're leaving shit all over the place that someone else is going to have to clean up, and it's going to be one long, drawn-out cleanup operation after the credits.
Which is one great thing about the movies: the CGI stands up to extremely close scrutiny, so what's on screen seems extremely real even if you don't care about it. You can't see any typical CGI artifacts that break the illusion of what's on screen--not in any smoke, fire, objects' textures, nothing. Even the Hobbit movies didn't accomplish this.
I suspect we'll see a lot more pandering to Chinese political and cultural sensibilities in future movies. I'd rather they just made two edits and left the China fluff out of the non-China releases. I used to think the pandering was so indelicate and ham-fisted that Chinese natives rolled their eyes at it. I used to think this about Mulan, but then I read that native Chinese thought Mulan was the greatest thing since simplified Chinese, so maybe the culture can plausibly be reduced to ancestors' ghosts and dragons.

The first one, is that the one where the futuristic robot that can instantly...transform...into a non-descript auto was hysterically hiding behind a tree?

Hahaha, it might have been. To be fair, the authorities were looking for nondescript automobiles. If you were looking for an autobot, would you look behind a tree?

Plot, schmot, Michael Bay is one of the very few directors around who can guarantee an IMAX 3D showing will not leave you feeling ripped off.

I'm not sure why his Transformers movies attract such vitriol. The second was dire mostly because it was rushed out with a writer's strike on. The first and third were perfectly acceptable summer blockbusters. The third in particular showed tremendous visual flair.

I think what you are looking for is meth.

LoL.... Andrew", as much as your OCD can be mildly annoying, your 1 liners are often golden.

Even action movies require certain things besides just action.

One of your recent posts raved about 'Upstream Color', so I rented it.

No longer taking movie reviews from Marginal Revolution....

I take it you got that up from here: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2014/06/artistic-musts.html

That wasn't Tyler's recommendation though. It was a group list with the other members being anon. If you followed this blog regularly you'd know which ones among that list are clearly Tyler's picks.

Here's my review of the previous Transformers sequel:


Big budget movies lately typically have a Chinese scene, and increasingly a Russian scene: e.g., the latest X-Men movie starts in Red Square then moves to some kind of Chinese temple.

Both countries are developing a culture of seeing this weekend's big blockbusters at movie theaters, so Hollywood is trying to cater to their desire to see local landmarks and stars included in blockbusters.

But that was a decent movie, although even a director I thought wasn't a hack chose to poison his well with f bombs nudit and incongruous violence.

I think it is more the 13 yo boys than Asians and mexicans. Your kilometerage may vary.

I live in HK and haven't seen any of the Transformers movies since the first one. It's pretty much a non-storyline action flick with clichéd characters but it was absolutely fantastic and hilarious (the whole audience was laughing so much) to see Transformers running around and destroying central Hong Kong where I often frequent! Finally people other than New Yorkers get to experience the entertainment on a more personal level!

People who complain about recent Hollywood movies should pay attention to the evolution of the domestic audience that is helping change movies toward Bigger and Dumber:


I have no respect for any adult who watches Transformers.

On days like today, it is clear that the world is a much better place for having Tyler Cowen in it. Who else could write such a review?

I submit this as a very good sentence...

"It is perhaps the most beautifully choreographed movie I have seen — ever — with one perfectly arranged ninety second sequence after another, in seamless fashion yet summed into something quite incoherent and meaningless and indeed even obnoxious at times."

One of the great accomplishments of CGI, is to create a continuity to multi-stage action shots. But during the final battle sequence of Transformers 3, the action sequence went on for so long, with so many "almost" physics defying sequences after another strung together, that the counterfactuals piling up in my head simply overwhelmed my cognitive functions, and i slumped into my popcorn, shielding my eyes and the throbbing headache that was rising rapidly within.

Confronting my son and his friends upon exit, an ideal demographic for this kind of movie-they knew sub-plots and other minutiae not readily evident to me- I was taken aback by how much they enjoyed the over the top action sequences, given that unlike me they have been exposed to CGI from birth. I thought they would have a higher baseline and be much more critical of CGI without plot or coherence. It turned out just the opposite.

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